Reading…’New York – An Illustrated History’

I’ve always been a great reader, but I don’t read so much as I used to – too many other distractions, I’m afraid.  When I do get hold of a book I like, it still seems to take me an eternity to read it as I tend to read just a few pages before going to sleep.  On holiday, however, with fewer distractions and no computer, I can still plough through several hundred pages  a day with no problem, if afforded the opportunity to do so.  Right now, I am a few pages from the end of this marvellous book, published originally as a ‘companion piece’ to a PBS documentary series (‘New York’) which as I recall was shown over here by Channel 4 some years ago. 

I won’t say that this is the last word on New York because, as the man once said, ‘there are a million stories in The Naked City’ and whilst this book contains many of them, there will always be more to tell.  Having said that, this large-format paperback contains most of the main threads in the city’s history from the moment that Henry Hudson sailed through the Narrows and realised that he had discovered one of the finest natural harbours anywhere.


It’s a source of some regret to me that I was well into my 40’s before I visited New York for the first time and I am long overdue another visit.  By the time I got there, I would have regarded myself as a reasonably seasoned traveller , having travelled widely in Europe, lived in Scandinavia for a while and having also explored the Indian sub-continent and chunks of North Africa.  All of which makes the impact my first trip to New York City had on me even more surprising.   

I can remember waiting to cross the road on Broadway, on my way from the Village up to the Strand bookstore near Union Square and just feeling my whole body almost trembling with excitement at actually being there.  I can also remember standing on Fifth Avenue outside the Plaza Hotel and realising that the guy standing 20 yards away from me waiting for a cab was Tony Bennett (‘Whaddya mean, “Who?” ‘.)  It really did feel like being in a movie….

Anyone familiar with the opening sequence of Woody Allen’s movie ‘Manhattan’ will be able to understand my feelings and  how difficult it is to actually find the words to convey the impact the totality of New York had on me.   Like Allen, I romanticised the city out of all proportion, but then this is nothing new – artists from John Dos Passos and George Gershwin through Mark Helprin and Georgia O’Keeffe to Lou Reed have done just the same, so I figure I’m in good company.

Anyway, I digress….

Credited to documentary-maker Ric Burns (brother of Ken Burns), James Sanders (who also edits) and Lisa Ades,  what this book does is to put flesh on the phantasmagorical bones of the city’s spectacular history, architecture and geography and add the human dimension that you might just miss as a tourist. 

For example, I was just reading a section about Robert Moses, a man whose name,  I suspect,  would be unknown to most first-time overseas visitors to New York.  Moses gets lost among the more colourful names on a roll-call of those indivisbly tied to the city – F.Scott Fitzgerald, Peter Stuyvesant, Fiorella La Guardia, Lou Gehrig, Andy Warhol etc etc – yet no-one has been more influential in (sometimes literally) shaping the city and making it what it is today.  For those still baffled, Moses was the man behind massive numbers of public works projects in the city and held sway over such matters from 1924 to 1968, outlasting a truckload of Governors, Mayors and Presidents.  To him can be attributed projects as diverse as Shea Stadium, the Triborough Bridge and the United Nations complex on the East River. 

However, to him can also be attributed the building of over 250 children’s playgrounds in New York, only one of which was in Harlem, Bed-Sty or any other heavily black area.   Also, he wanted to run a six-lane Expressway through Greenwich Village and was thwarted only by some serious community resistance.   Maybe these are some of the reasons why we don’t hear too much about him.  One of the many things I like about this book is that it acknowledges and reflects these uglier aspects of the city’s history, but doesn’t allow them to hijack the narrative at any point.

Talking of which, any recent history of New York City will need to concern itself with the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.  Unfortunately for Ric Burns et al, the series was pretty much in the can as a planned 7-part PBS broadcast by the time 9/11 took place.  To their credit, the team re-convened and produced an 8th episode about the World Trade Centre and the attacks, which actually ran to about double the length of the other episodes, if memory serves.  Whilst reviewing the history of the WTC and looking at the events of 9/11, the series producers also did a great job of contextualising the WTC saga within the series as a whole.

Having seen the  series to which this book is a companion and having re-run it on DVD not that long ago, I must say that this book is not only a great accompaniment to an extremely accomplished series, but also adds depth and incorporates extra stuff that maybe didn’t make ‘the final cut’ on screen but is there in the book.  It’s also beautifully illustrated with a wonderful selection of photos.  Oh and it weighs over 5 lbs, so if you’re doing any travelling, might be an idea to select something a bit more portable!

‘New York : An Illustrated History’ (paperback) by Ric Burns ), James Sanders and Lisa Ades

Published by Alfred E. Knopf – currently £21.83 from – and worth every penny!


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